Freddie Prinze Jr. has been retired from acting for the past 14 years. Not retired, retired, exactly, but sort of. “I was always like, ‘If you're going to retire, why do you need a press release?’ Just leave. Just stop,” the actor explains over Zoom from his gaming room in California. So he did.
In reality, Prinze Jr. always had one goal in life: To be a good father. It was always top of mind for him, he says, considering his own dad, actor and stand-up comic Freddie Prinze, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound just a few months after Prinze Jr. was born. He was lovingly raised by his “crazy” mother, Kathy, a woman who cared for her son so much that she threatened one of his teachers with a .357 in her purse when the educator planned to paddle the youngster during school, and “a bunch of sociopaths”—family friends that he refers to as his “uncles,” including his godfather Bob Wall, Chuck Norris, Gene LeBell, and Ron De Blasio. Everything he learned—from defending himself from bullies to controlling his emotions—came from them. Talking about the group is bittersweet: “All the men that helped raise me have died in the last year, which is just brutal,” he says, sighing. But he credits them, particularly Wall, for shaping him into the man he is today. That, for him, comes back to being a great dad, which is exactly what he’s been doing for the last several years, aside from some voice acting, a cookbook, a short lived Punky Brewster reboot, a handful of WWE appearances and his wrestling podcast Wrestling With Freddie.
While it’s been nearly three decades since his winning smile, spiked hairdo, and shiny, washboard abs launched him into the pages of Tiger Beat, Prinze Jr. still has that signature charm readily available while perched over his desk in a gray hoodie, with a little bit of salt and pepper scruff added into the mix. He's a skilled, engaging storyteller, with grandiose tales pouring out of him without, seemingly, taking a breath or losing his laissez-faire demeanor. In fact, the disappearance from the pop culture-sphere has just added some mystique, I find, as he reminisces about the 46 years of his life.
So what brought him out of retirement? His daughter, Charlotte, 13, he says, just as he receives a text from her asking him to help her prep for a Spanish test. (Prinze Jr. and wife Sarah Michelle Gellar also have a 10-year-old son, Rocky, together.) As her curiosity piqued about Hollywood and performing, Prinze Jr. and Gellar agreed that they would start taking on acting projects to show her the ropes and teach her from their personal perspectives. “Sarah and I deal with everything so differently,” he says, “this way she could kind of cherry-pick the parts that she felt could work for her, and the crap that she didn't agree with, she could then throw away and disregard.”
It’s not like work had dried up for Prinze Jr. “I mean, I've been offered a bunch of romantic comedies over the last 15 years,” he reveals. “I was just never reading any of the scripts. I didn't have any interest in doing it.” He was, after all, was thrust into the world of acting at merely 18. With his hiatus, he was able to self-analyze, to figure out his strengths and weaknesses, to study movies and television like a student in college. To be the kind of father he didn’t get to have.
But when he was approached with the Netflix holiday outing Christmas With You—everything about it made sense. The movie—which follows a holiday romance between a JLo-meets-Britney Spears-esque pop star on the verge of being dumped by her label (Aimee Garcia) and the music teacher father of the girl who runs her fan social media account (Prinze Jr.)—gave him his first opportunity to play a father on-screen and also be a part of a Christmas story centered on a Latino family. “The whole team was Latino. Our director, Gabriela [Tagliavini], the producer, German [Michael Torres], our freakin’ Steadicam operator was even Latino. So, for me, I was just so grateful for the opportunity to earn their respect,” says Prinze Jr.
The experience was the exact opposite of what he endured for most of his career. It wasn’t like, “Fox Studios changing the last name from ‘Smith’ to ‘Martinez or whatever, so they could look like they hire diversity, when in fact, they don't,” he says, recalling a real-life memory. This felt meaningful. Prinze Jr., who is of Puerto Rican descent, had experienced his fair share of racism beyond that over the years. More than once he was accidentally sent emails where directors would say they’d need to “test his Hispanic knowledge to see if he’s really worthy” of the role. As someone who is mixed race, it was insulting. Not only were they doing the bare minimum for representation, but they were questioning whether or not Prinze Jr. was “Latino enough” for the parts.
He found other ways to survive Hollywood beyond the studio system itself, thanks to “the only good advice” his Puerto Rican grandmother, Mary, gave him. “She said, ‘Don't ever tell them you speak Spanish.’” And by them she meant anyone. Literally. “I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘That way you'll always know how they really feel about you.’ She was dead on,” he recalls. Prinze Jr., who hid that he was bilingual, has on several occasions heard offensive comments about both him and his dad from people who worked with and for him. “Sometimes it was people that I knew that I had had relationships with, people that I hired, that I had given a job to when other cats there had never hired them for anything,” he casually remarks. He was able to keep his composure thanks to the lessons of his godfather, despite the testosterone of a twenty-something coursing through his veins.
While playing a dad in a holiday movie is a departure from those teen hottie days, Christmas With You is a clever callback to the peak of his rom-com stardom. After emerging as a breakout star in the 1997 slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel, Prinze Jr.’s star exploded; he took roles in films like Summer Catch, Down to You, Head Over Heels, Boys and Girls, and most notably, She’s All That. He also charmed audiences as Fred in the Scooby Doo movies, which have since become cult classics. The fame was flanked by the pressure that came with it—and a perception that perhaps Prinze Jr. never really wanted. “I fell in love with movies because of men in masks,” he recalls. “I always wanted Ron Perlman's career, I never wanted mine.” So does he have any roles he regrets? It’s tricky. Scooby came with a host of frustrations: the script that he signed on for wasn’t the movie that was made, and Prinze Jr. was asked to take a pay cut when the rest of the cast wanted a raise for the second film: “I remember thinking, ‘Hold up, who's giving them the raise? Me or y'all?’ Like we made you guys three-quarters of a billion dollars, you can't afford to pay them what I'm making on this? Screw that." To get him to comply, the studio allegedly released Prinze Jr.'s salary in a magazine. “My ego was so angry,” he recalls. He decided he was done with the franchise.
Over the years, his perspective of the project has shifted thanks to social media. He can finally think of the movie as something meaningful to people—not a cash grab. “All these people that had grown up loving those [Scooby-Doo] movies started reaching out…and then I got what I felt was a more accurate perspective on what that movie meant to people because I was no longer viewing it through the lenses of the studio,” he explains.
So Prinze Jr. is decidedly not the popular-guy-turned bet-maker, the local baseball player in love with the neighborhood dream girl way out of his reach, or the aspiring chef in a seemingly star-crossed romance. Prinze Jr. is a no-bullshit, straight shooter who is more comfortable on the fringes than in the center of the spotlight and a consummate professional who will never be cramming lines in the makeup trailer. He’s also a wrestling aficionado who worked for the WWE for a time and is, as he says, “mentally and emotionally” a 13-year-old who loves playing board games and Dungeons & Dragons, pointing at the collection of cosplay masks behind him. Prinze Jr. contains multitudes.
The thirst to make movies, however, remains. Though Christmas With You feels natural to the part of his filmography that came at the height of his fame, it wasn’t supposed to be his comeback vehicle. He was actually supposed to do a horror movie, but when he came down with COVID, he had to back out of production. “I dealt with some of the long-term effects of that for a while that really just kicked my ass,” he says, resting his hands behind his head. But, curiously enough, Christmas With You is giving him another shot at terrifying audiences; the movie helped him forge a connection with the film’s producer who has been developing a horror flick that he’s trying to get off the ground. In terms of current career goals, that’s at the top of his list. “I love low-budget horror films where it's like guerilla warfare and everybody's getting dirty and messy,” Prinze Jr. says, excitedly.
Still, he wouldn’t be opposed to another rom-com if the right one came around, “Getting to be a dad was kind of the hook,” he says of Christmas With You. “It was something that I hadn't done a million times before. So, as long as there's something there that can hook me, then I would be all in on it.”
Maybe one with She’s All That co-star Rachael Leigh Cook, I ask? The former costars were, after all, spotted on the red carpet together at the Christmas With You premiere (she was his “safe date”), which ignited a swirl of nostalgia on social media. “We have [spoken about it] a few times over the years,” he admits. “The first real opportunity for us to work together again happened when I walked away from the business, and so it just wasn't going to happen.” But their friendship has remained. “I've been cool with Rachael since we made the movie.” He adds, with a laugh: “She's one of the few people I worked with that never hit on me, and that includes my wife.”
Whatever the actor’s next project, one thing’s for certain: He’s not done telling stories quite yet. As his “uncle” DeBlasio once said, “storytellers cut no wood,” and Prinze Jr. doesn’t have a single callus: “I’m long-winded, but it's because I like telling stories, entertaining people and making people feel good.”
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